On death and cooking…

29 Apr

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I have started the intermediate part of the Cordon Bleu at Home course after taking a lengthy sabbatical. How long has it been –  6 months, a year?  I had thought, rather stupidly, “Well instead of this French stuff every Saturday, lets cook dishes from around the world.”  You know, Around the world in 80 Saturdays. But, sourcing and matching the menu, and staying dedicated was just too time consuming and after a couple of rather uninspiring meals, nothing truly memorable surfaced from our kitchen. My family started to complain, and an invisible unspoken tension started to set in whenever I opened the cupboard with the fine bone china. The question on everyone’s minds were – ” Why are we eating a sloppy looking dish from Southern Afghanistan that tastes like a sloppy dish from Southern Afghanistan ? ”   The symptoms of French Gourmet withdrawal were starting to show.

So, after a great week eating fantastic fusion food in Vietnam, I was inspired anew on the gourmet thing, and decided that I absolutely had to make an effort to start part 2 of Cordon Bleu at Home. After all, the initial, low level Beginners section was completed; 30 lessons and what feels like 300 Saturdays later. So the kitchen was definitely going to heat up in the technique department with the second part of this superb book.

Cooking French to me is a bit  like confronting death. No really, it is. I feel uncertain, there is fear and trepidation, I know it will be a slow, possibly painful process involving self doubt, bits of bargaining and even splashes of denial, but in the end, its going to be the only way I’m going to experience a true bit of heaven.

So kicking off the intermediate part of the book, this lesson consisted of making, like always, a starter, mains and dessert.  Ham and Spinach Quiche, Seabass Poached in wine and sauteed mushrooms, and for dessert a very elaborate Souffleed crepe flamed with splashes of heavenly Cointreau.

Needless to say – it also means a whole Saturday in the kitchen, stocks made from scratch, a delicate Pate Brisee (quiche crust) in which even your fingers need to be cooled in a bowl of ice, whilst the temperature outside is sizzling at 41.6 C or 100 F. Suddenly Rachael Ray’s, two tins of this and a box of that seems a luxurious pipe-dream – whats wrong with dinner and limited compliments in under 10 minutes?

Denial and self doubt…

But, with beautiful food, for those who are aspiring cooks, we know that anything that is thrown together in anything less than an hour, seldom achieves noteworthy status. For Cordon Bleu, its usually the entire day and yes, its always something truly memorable.

We spend the next several hours preparing dinner. Its impossibly hot in the kitchen, No aircon – not even a window – just a skylight. Its Thailand in the dead of summer with record temperatures, so the pate brisee needs to be made in the lounge. I carry a huge Imitation marble floor tile to the lounge and set upon it a large flat metal tray brimming with ice to start cooling the work surface. I switch on both the air conditioners, turning their settings from Gates of Hell  all the way down to Melting the Polar Icecaps. In the meantime, I prepare the spinach and ham and create a home made Creme Fraiche for the main course sauce, using half cream, half sour creme and a dash of lime and set it on the kitchen counter for the next 6 hours.  When the lounge feels cool enough for ski wear, I prepare the Pate Brisee, and it turns out gorgeous. The cooling precautions paid off handomely, so  I jump back into the kitchen, get my nanny cracking on preparing and sauteing some mushrooms whilst I get going on the orange infused batter for the crepes.

Then I make the filling for the quiche using creme and 2 egg yolks, 70g of  Gruyere that cost almost as much as a pound of Beluga Caviar and add to the mix the prepared ham and spinach. I roll out the Pate Brisee, line a quiche dish and blind bake it weighed down with parchment paper filled with stale dried chickpeas which reached their sell-by several years ago.  The fish stock gets underway, and it tastes like a thousand koy shat in overly warm water. We make some adjustments and in the end it tastes like only a few shat in it. After all – we are only going to use 1 cup of this stuff, and then there will be cream and wine and more butter. It will be fine… Its French… its gonna be magnefique, superbe, oooh lala!  The French allowed the rest of the world to throw cream and butter onto the lowest form of peasant food and turn it into a UNESCO world intangible heritage. This stock is going to end up superb, with or without the vile taste of panicked stricken koy.

The quiche gets filled and finished, and goes into the oven.  I get cracking on the filling for the crepes. Its an elaborate filling that takes 40 minutes to make, and that only takes it halfway.  But who cares. We are nearly done and we have hours to spare. The quiche is cooling and the fish is happily simmering drunkedly in a pool of stock and white wine, covered snugly in a cosy blanket of buttered parchment paper. Time for a few glugs of wine. Oooh crap – better get the eggwhites out of the fridge and the temperature down to that of the room. How humiliating if the souffle fails to rise to the occasion. I beat the egg whites and throw in a pinch of Creme of tartar. The results are astounding, not unlike adding Viagra and the whites end up voluminous, stiff and shiny. I add 1/3 of a cup of Cointreau to the filling, beat in a yolk, add a dash of confectioners sugar, and the dessert is set for making a spectacular finale.

Time to fiddle with the koy extractions. I remove the fish to a platter and pour the remainder of the sauce into a saucepan.  Cooking the stock with some wine has improved matters substantially. It has a attained some drunken afterglow. It almost tastes acceptable. I reduce by boiling it rapidly and by the time its fully reduced, there is little over a cup left. I add a cup and a bit of the creme fraiche from the counter, bring it to boil whist whisking and then simmer it slowly for a few minutes. I dunk a tablespoon into it and check the back. Yup, covered nicely.  I taste, then stagger 3 steps back and a small step forward as the taste of the sauce melts into thousand subliminal creamed fish whispers. Wow, who would have thought that nervous tasting fish brew from earlier could reach these levels of culinary nirvana?  But, being so anal retentive, I feel the consistency is not quite there.  I have Escoffier twitching in his grave as I quickly dilute 2 teaspoons of cornflour into a tablespoon of milk and whisk it in.  Add a small pinch of salt and a dash of pepper. Oh lala – magnefique!

Suddenly – apart from the final touches to dessert, its all done. The table is set in fine china, we set the scented candles, and get some flowers from the garden.

Dinner goes well – it always does if so much effort gets put into it.

The quiche is good, though next time I’d double the filling. The fish is absolutely fantastic… it died a thousand deaths and went to a thousand heavens. The crepes, excellent, even though I almost flambeed the fake mahogany dinner table instead. I know this was an excellent meal – everyone is in a happy mood…  some sort of post-orgasmic food bliss has settled in the room.

An hour later Im in the kitchen when my brother enters, wineglass in hand , the  food-bliss glow still radiating from his cheeks.

“Oh cheers to you and Joom for a superb dinner and a superb meal”  he puts down his wineglass and steps toward me – In a panic, I realise that he is going to hug me..

I think – wow I thought the meal was good – I did not realise it was hug- from-brother worthy…

And suddenly overwhelmed with joy, I feel all the elaborate effort was almost worth it, before my thoughts turn suddenly to the rather morbid subject of my own immortality…

2 Responses to “On death and cooking…”

  1. Alexandra Dodd April 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    Oh, I just LOVED this installment, Pierre. You write so beautifully and I loved the existential twinges to this particular column, let alone the fact that the meal sounds mouthwateringly delicious. But yes, I suppose it’s the particular metaphoric and affective spin in your approach to cordon bleu that really has me hooked.
    It is a wintry day here in Cape Town today and Wendel I went for lunch at a little French bistro in Constantia, called Pastis. We shared a demi carafe of vin rouge and a pear, walnut and roquefort salad to start, and I had the tastiest wild mushroom ravioli as my main course… Afterwards we went walking in the mountains at Constantia Nek and it was a really atmospheric white and grey day and everything looked so green and the wind was running so sweetly through the wild grasses and it was so good to walk after a nice strong espresso and breathe the air and savour feeling full and warm in our winter jackets… I told Wendel about your column as we walked and we thought how good it would be to visit sometime and meet Barian, eventually. In the meantime, I look forward to your next culinary excursion. x Alex

  2. pierre verwey April 30, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    Thanks for taking the time to reply Alex. Of couse you would be most welcome here in BKK. We have the foreign food craving department running smoothly, but alas, old friends with a bit of history are always in short supply. We would be delighted!

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